Transcribed from the sermon preached August 13, 2017
The Reverend Max Lynn, Pastor
Scripture Readings: Romans 13:8-14, Matthew 18: 15-20
It was a sad day when Garrison Keillor, producer and writer for the long running radio program Prairie Home Companion retired. I noticed he is still keeping busy writing when I saw his commentary yesterday, August 9, in the Washington Post entitled Melania Should Tell Donald the Truth.
My wife has gone East for a couple weeks and now there is nobody to say, “You’re not wearing that tie with that shirt, are you?” Nobody to point discreetly at her left nostril and hand me a tissue. Nobody to remind me of the name of that woman with the glasses (Liz) whom I ought to know — I told my wife, “Her and me went to school together” so that she’d have the satisfaction of saying “She and I.” “No,” I said, “I don’t think you went to our school.”
This is the American way. Those whom we love, we needle. Better honest skepticism than false piety.
Keillor notes that his marriage “operates on a delicate system of checks and balances. I say, “Let’s put a ping-pong table in the living room” and she says, “After I’m gone,” and so we don’t.
“Everyone needs a truth-teller in his or her life and truth-tellers are becoming rare. It’s the Age of Sensitivity when we’re made to feel that we should be validating each other and not telling someone that his fly is open.”
This morning in Matthew we hear Jesus giving advice on how to tell truth and deal with sins against us. It is a brilliant piece of advice for a very common occurrence in life. If we are in relationship with anyone, we will at times show our weakness and flaws, we will hurt each other’s feelings.
Besides going to the person directly, which is what Jesus suggests, what are our other options?
Option 1 – we can tweet something nasty about them so the whole world knows. We try to get the jump on public opinion, try and get others, who don’t know the whole story, to jump to the conclusion that we are right and they are wrong. The narcissist will consider any slight as an attack, and will often respond by escalating the conflict. If you pinch me I will hit you. This person is worried about power and popularity and wants to be on top. So they don’t want to resolve conflict, they want to win, they want to overwhelm and beat their competition until they give up.
Now it is possible for people who tend to escalate conflict to shift some of their aggressiveness or defensiveness on behalf of others whom they deem worthy of their support – often those who are dependent on them. So they may justify themselves by saying look how I defend others, but their approach is still to attack and escalate conflict.
The underlying part of our personality when a slight turns us into attack mode is a low self-esteem. Even as we may pump ourselves up as great and worthy, our sense of well-being is highly dependent on the affirmation of others. We may give more weight to the offending person or the offensive act than is healthy, because we are emotionally dependent on the point of view of others. We allow our focus to get side tracked toward the offending person.
Option 2 when someone sins against us is to gossip about them. Rather than talk to them directly, we secretly try to sway the opinions of others against them, or we try to get someone else to solve our problem or discipline them, or attack them for us. This is very common in families. Our sister doesn’t move her broken down car out of our driveway so we call mom to talk about it. Then mom calls sister and breaks the news. In Family Systems Theory we call this triangulation. Note that Jesus says that sometimes we may need to bring in another one or two people. But only after we have been clear and direct with the offending person.
The exception here of course is when there is danger. A woman or child who has been abused by a man, for example, will not want to go confront him alone. But in the vast majority of instances, we are better off going to meet the person one on one to communicate directly and clearly.
Option 3 when we are offended is to stuff it and not say anything. We just hold it in and let resentment grow within us. I once spoke with a woman who had finally grown annoyed enough with her husband to talk with her pastor about how she could confront her him. Though it was often unclear what time he would come home because he might stop off for a drink, he would come in and sit in his lounge chair in front of the TV, and expect dinner and a beer immediately. If the beer and dinner wasn’t there, he would criticize and berate her. She put up with this quietly for many years. She said, “I know that Jesus said pick up your cross and follow me, and that the bible is against divorce.” So she considered stuffing this abusive behavior as her cross. I mentioned that Jesus, while he loved all, he spoke the truth and confronted. While he didn’t return abuse for abuse, and kept his focus on love rather than beating or gaining power over people, he didn’t accept sin without addressing it. We worked so that she could gain her courage to let him know her feelings and expectations. And then she went with her daughter and son as support.
Now sometimes there are sins against us that aren’t worth our time. We have to weigh our goal and focus. On the one hand there are those people whose opinions or actions shouldn’t matter that much to us – someone at a party or in another car in traffic. I’m trying to learn not to care as much about dumb opinions on Facebook. We have better things to do with our time than confront every affront by all those we may come across. On the other hand, in any long term relationship that does matter, like marriage, if we confront the other person every time they don’t live up to our standards, all we will be doing is bickering. We run the risk of the sin of being too judgmental.
While it is surely possible that the introvert is the more critical and judgmental, and the extrovert the pleaser or the easy going one, Usually introverts will tend to err on the side of not sharing their thoughts and feelings enough, and the extroverts will err on the side of saying too much too often. A common introvert problem may be, rather than actually clearly articulating what they feel and why, they make critical face or pout, or huff and puff around the house, leaving the other to try and guess what the facial expression or loud door closing means. I know none of you introverts in the congregation do this, but others do. Extroverts may tend to react too fast. If someone really pushes our buttons and we really feel a strong need to react, we should take a time out. I call it the 48 hour rule. Sleep and pray on it for at least two nights.
Option 4 for what we do when someone offends us is to flee, to break off the relationship. This is the flip side of the same coin as Option 1, the fighters. We may have a tendency to go into fight or flight mode. So if we decide not to fight, we flight, we cut off. The flesh as Paul refers to it leads us to greed, to take for ourselves without regard for the other person, and to jealousy and quarreling.
Grab, Hit and run: when we get the impulse or temptation to grab, hit or run, that is what Paul calls the flesh. The flesh is a part of our inner personality, but we don’t want it to be the boss. We hope, pray and trust the loving Christ incarnate within our heart, body and mind to be our guide.
So now back to the Jesus option. The key to this whole thing, the key guide in our interactions is to first understand and receive the love of God through Christ. Faith and trust in God’s love and forgiveness gives us a self-esteem less dependent on the words and actions of others. It also gives us the courage to name our truth – to treat others with the respect and expectation that, while they may be less than perfect, and they might occasionally need some help and correction, they would like to get along with us. It is my hope, expectation and prayer that relations between church members are held in this positive expectation. Friends who love us enough to tell us the truth.
Staying focused on the love of God also enables us to not get sucked into warrior, win or lose, fight or flight mode. We don’t want to give the mean person the power to take our freedom to determine our goals. Even if the other person acts with meanness, tweets something nasty, gossips, even lies or manipulates to win, winning for us means staying on the love track. That does not mean we do not confront injustice, make our thoughts and feelings clear, or speak the truth. It just means that we do so with the intention not to win or beat the other person down, but to build love up, especially within ourselves.
To resolve conflict, Jesus wants us to start small. Keep the drama to a minimum. First you go one to one, and if it is resolved nobody else needs to be brought in, and everyone moves onto better things. If one on one doesn’t do it, pick out a wise person or two or three to help out and be objective listeners. No need to jump into the battlefield of court right away where your advocates or lawyers are your soldiers there to win your battle. Bring those who understand God’s love and want a good and just resolution for all involved.
Finally, if the person is still stubborn and unrepentant, then the body will have to step in with authority and establish boundaries.
Keeping love as our focus and goal will help us pay more attention to process rather than content. Love stays our big goal, and helps us not get sucked into winning the war of words or thinking this little battlefield deserves a fight to the death.
Paul reminds us, life, after all, is short, “Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; 12the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.” This is great imagery, as many of us will note, after we withdrew and recovered from a conflict, how blinded and dark our vision had been. Or how many times have we looked in on the conflict of someone we care about and thought, “Wake up!” You have no objectivity. You are losing track of what should matter to you. Whether in Church, family or in politics, our goal is not to win every little battle or conflict, but to see with God’s eyes, and win the war of life for love. Ultimately, that war is fought within ourselves between different parts of our personality. The Good News is, despite our faults and blindness, Christ is in there, and on our side.